Kissing The Moon

[Source: Google search.]

So, there is a story.  It goes something like this:

A certain Chinese poet, Li Po, was said to have tried to kiss the reflection of the moon from his boat.  He leaned to plant the kiss…fell overboard  and drowned.  What is the moral of the story?

I am fascinated by the moon.  The werewolves, in legend, were dictated by the full moon.  The moon’s 28 day cycle has been linked with the monthly cycle  of a woman.

The moon.

I may have had my first kiss on a night of the Full Moon. I just don’t remember…I was moon struck. I walked home from a date one night when I was in high school.  My readers will know who the girl was.  I stepped into the playground of the elementary school where I attended for eight years.  It was a Catholic school.  There was a cross on the peak of the ‘tower’…I don’t know what else to call it.  I aligned the cross with the full moon that was rising over the Susquehanna River.  I looked across the street where, earlier, I had been sitting with my girlfriend on a stone bench…still there along Front Street…watching the moon rise over the ripples of the slow-moving river.

But, after my session with the moon and the cross, I walked home strangely altered…how? I can not say, but the experience stays with me.

Did we really walk on the moon?  I gaze at it often and wonder how, when a laptop crashes, we mustered the technology to go all the way there and come back…a dozen times.

As a science teacher,  I once had a plexiglass disk with a moon rock in my hands.  It was unreal.

I used to talk to my fading sweetheart, when I was in college, from a pay phone…I could see the moon through the glass…I asked her if she would look out of her window, 1,200 miles away to see the same moon.

The same moon that shed it’s light on all of history.

So, what is the real story I’m trying to tell?  I’m not sure, I guess it’s about dreaming, night and desiring something that may be the last fatal desire.

Don’t try to kiss the moon…kiss the one you love…or love the one you’re with.

The moon.

[A Full Moon in Paris. My photograph.]

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68 Steps Along The Nave Of Wells Cathedral

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Three hundred and sixty-five days ago, I was climbing the endless steps of Sacre Coeur in Paris.  My wife was at my side.  We paused on the 67th step, and, in the warm Parisian sun, we turned and looked back at the City of Lights.  We kissed on that 67th step.

It was my 67th birthday.

Today, I am 68 years old and we are sitting in a cafe in Wells, England.  This is in the county of Somerset.  I think that’s a beautiful name…Somerset.

A few minutes ago we walked down the middle aisle of the nave of the Cathedral.  We were approaching the great arches that somehow set this Cathedral apart from the other massive Gothic buildings we’ve seen.

I looked up at the simple vaulting on the ceiling.  At my feet were large slabs of marble that marked and described the dead who are buried beneath the church.  Organ music played quietly and with a simplicity that reflected the architecture.  This place totally lacked the high grandeur of a Westminster Abbey.

We paused—68 steps along the nave.  We happened to be standing on the grave of a married couple, dead now for centuries.  They would rest beneath the floor until the Cathedral walls crumbled to the ground.

I turned and kissed my wife.

We would be together until the stones of our lives crumble.

I wonder where we will kiss when I turn 69 years old in 2016.

Forever and a Day

 RomanticLove

Absolutely nothing lasts forever.

Nothing lasts forever.

There may be some things that last forever.

One thing lasts forever.

You’re waiting for me in the cafe.  The place beside the old church and next to the cemetery.  The only place in the city where I can sit next to the fire and feel warm…on a night like this.  We have so much to talk about.  It’s been so many years since we’ve had a chance to sit and think of the days gone by.

You’re waiting in the cafe–I just can’t remember how to get there.

I was very young and you had an uncanny ability to determine when my diaper would be wet.  You would change it for me.  I couldn’t talk to you.  You just knew when it was time.  You held my hand when I could barely walk.  I never said a word.  You cooked my food for a thousand dinners.  You sent me off to First Grade with a clean, freshly ironed hanky in my pocket.  No matter what my grades were, you dutifully signed my report card.  On those many nights when I couldn’t sleep, too many times for a child to fear closing his eyes, you would allow me to sit with you and we would eat crackers with chives and cheese.  The black and white television blinking away in the dark living room.

You were in third grade when I looked over at you–two rows away–and watched while you tried to open an ink bottle.  You pressed it hard against your green school shift.  You’re bangs fell away from your forehead.  Years later, you allowed me my first kiss.  Still later you wore my corsage on your taffeta prom dress.  Then you would find someone else and you broke my fragile teenage heart.

I was curious about the color of your hair beneath your stiff white habit.  Your black rosary hung from your black belt around your black dress–your habit.  You taught us to be kind.  You taught us to feel guilty.  And once, you told me: “Don’t ever be afraid to say no.”  It’s taken me many years to really understand what you meant.

I lit your cigarettes.  I bought you drinks.  I slept in your bed.  We made love under three quilts when the winter was cold and dark.  We sweated on the sheets in August when it was bright afternoon and hot.

I kissed you only once.  I kissed you many times.  I kissed you in my daydreams when you were thirty feet away on the Boardwalk.  Your hair was blonde, then black and red and brown and straight and wavy.  Your eyes were blue, gray, brown, hazel and green.  You were older.  Then you were younger.

You walked down the aisle of a church to meet me at the altar.  We were happy, sad, angry, contented, miserable, joyful and jealous.

We came and went through each others lives.  My hair slowly turned from brown to white.  Your’s from jet black to salt and pepper.  You sang to me.  I couldn’t carry a tune.  We sipped ale in England and wine in France.  We walked on muddy glacier ice in Alaska.  You watched me watching the topless twenty-somethings on a beach in Jamaica.  You never missed a trick.

You said you loved me when I didn’t think I would ever be loved again.  You saved my life, not with a toss of a rope but with a phone call.

You’re waiting in the cafe.  I’m trying to hurry.  I can hardly walk.  When we sit next to each other you will somehow know if I have wet my trousers again.

Is this a hallway or a street in Paris?  I can’t remember.

But, all those memories are so sharp and clear, like everything happened yesterday, or this morning.

You will still be waiting for me, won’t you?  I remember what I said so many, many years ago:

“Nothing lasts forever.”

I was wrong.  Love lasts forever.  We love each other, don’t we?  Still?

Love last forever.  Forever and a day.

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Passports 7: Last Thoughts on Listening to “Bohemian Rhapsody” in Pere La Chaise Cemetery

I find Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody to be a sad song of life, mistakes, loss and death.  Freddie Mercury was a beautiful man who died too young.  His vocals are pure and haunting:

Is this the real life?

Is this just fantasy?

When you wander Paris and take time to look, really look around, you find yourself caught in a blizzard of classical art.  Every street, every side street and plaza is architecturally unique.  The statuary on countless buildings depict beauty in all forms.  I found myself feeling melancholy as I stared into the marble eyes of a statue of a woman who was so beautiful it hurt my eyes…like looking into the face of the sun.  You want to look away, but you can’t.

Beauty.  It touches your very soul.  Your arms ache to embrace the woman of stone.  You want her to come alive and walk with you through the gardens or along the Seine. You want to tell her what you are feeling…and hear her story that has been held in her crystal brain for 700 years.

Too late, my time has come,

Sent shivers down my spine,

Body’s aching all the time.

Why am I so restless?  I don’t feel like I belong in this skin that has been mine for 67 years.  I yearn for other times and far off places.  I am an actor on one stage of one theater in a continent of tragedies.  I always want another part to play.

What am I waiting for?

The answer appeared before me when I passed under a stone arch and climbed stone steps…to stand at the edge of a stone city of the dead.  This was Pere La Chaise Cemetery.  It is the resting place for thousands of French, notable and unknown.  But the visitors come here to gaze upon the stone and marble slabs of the famous.  Here lies the mortal remains of Chopin, Collette, Jim Morrison, Piaf, Poulenc, Moliere, Victor Noir, Marcel Marceau, Abelard and Heloise, Proust, Oscar Wilde, Yves Montand, Bizet, Dore, Trujillo, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Sarah Bernhardt, Isadora Duncan, Delacroix and Rossini.  This is just a partial list.  You won’t find many Captains of Industry or the Super Rich who have left no legacy.  No, this cemetery has more than it’s fair share of the artistic souls.

I stood by Piaf’s marble stone and, in my head, sang “Non je ne regrette rein.”

I placed a tiny yellow flower on Proust’s grave.

I read Francois Villon to my wife while looking at the two effigies of Abelard and Heloise.

I stood by Jim Morrison’s grave and felt the waste of a life.

None of these beautiful and artistic people really wanted to die.  I hope they didn’t.  Because as tortured as life is, it’s only a waiting game.

I don’t wanna die

I sometimes wish I was never born at all

Nothing really matters,

Anyone can see,

Nothing really matters,

Nothing really matters, to me.

I walked the avenues of this necropolis and I began to fear death less.  These sensitive souls wait in peace.  If Proust can lay there, if Piaf can rest here…then there’s hope for the likes of me.

Nothing matters…everything matters…to me.

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Tomb of Abelard and Heloise

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Monument for Jim Morrison

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Shaded walkway among the crypts

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It’s easy to get lost here.

Grief

Grief…plain and simple

Passports 6: The Quiet Skulls Beneath Paris

A small quiet square, Place Denfert-Rochereau, in the 14th Arrondissement of Paris looks like so many such places.  Beautiful and expensive apartments line the streets that radiate out from the plaza.  Small gardens and vest-pocket parks abound.  The locals and tourists hurry along…heading into the Metro or hailing a taxi, catching a bus…or simply strolling along the nearby Rue Froidenvaux or Blvd Port-Royal.  Outside a nondescript building, a line has formed.  People are waiting for something.  They wait quietly, chatting with each other.

They are in line to buy a ticket and descend into the bowels of the city where the dead dwell.  It is a subterranean cemetery.  It is the Catacombs de Paris.  And it is a very intense experience.

Several signs warn that the tour may be upsetting to young children or “people with delicate nerves”.

This will be a brief post.  I will let the dead do the talking.

One day in the 19th century, a hole opened up in the middle of a street nearby.  This prompted the authorities to descend and investigate.  What they found was a vast subterranean graveyard that had been forgotten for many decades.

The story is quite simple, really.  In the center of Paris, there are few cemeteries.  A family cannot purchase a plot, bury the dead and walk away.  No…you ‘rent’ the plot for twenty years and then…then to make room for more of the dead, the bones are dug up and collected.  And the plot is then available for someone else.

What to do with the bones?  The solution was simple.  Find an underground chamber…a very large chamber and place the bones (and skulls) there.  Do the math.  This is going to amount to a sizable number of bones when you consider the number of dead and the number of years involved.

This, then, is the reason for the Catacombs.

I descended a winding staircase that seems to be dropping into the lower levels of the Underworld of mythology.  Finally, a level surface to walk.  A long tunnel.  A very long tunnel.  Other visitors spoke in hushed tones.

Then the Ossuary.

I had read about this place and I knew what I was going to look upon…I just had no idea of the scale of the place.  You cannot count the bones or the skulls.  They number in the millions.  Each small alcove had the femurs stacked as neatly as firewood, thin firewood.  After a certain number of bones were the skulls…all in a row.  On top of the pile were scattered spare leg and arm bones.

And this went on…and on.  It went on until you became overwhelmed by the sheer number of skeletal parts you were walking past.

Touching the human remains was strictly forbidden.

I stood at eye level with a skull.  I looked into the sockets.  Nothing fearful filled my heart or head…only my attempts to imagine this individual as a living entity.  Was it a female?  Was she pretty, young, in love, lonely, broken-hearted, happy, a mother, a daughter, a wife, a lover?  Was this skull once a young man, brave, lonely, wanting love, feeling desire…fearing death?

Some may call this place macabre.  Some may say it’s morbid.  Some people miss the point.  I found this place to be the most intense celebration of human existence and death that I have ever came upon.

How often does one get to commune with a million relics of a million lives?  The detritus of mortal bodies after the soul has taken flight.

 

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Low Tide at Mont Saint-Michel

There was a time when you needed to watch the rising sea water if you found yourself on the Mount of St. Michael.  The abbey and village were situated on the tidal flats of the second largest bay in the world, off the coast of Brittany.  You would cross to the abbey during low tide, but when the twice daily water level change took place, you were stuck.  I know.  I remember the days when all this was true.  As a teenager, sitting in the library of my high school, I ran across a travel photo of this most beautiful place.  I read about the tides and I thought what a really interesting experience that was…being isolated by the sea on a cone-shaped island.  I knew I had to see this place for myself.  This I did, several decades ago.  And, now, here I stood once again…but the ‘forced exile’ of the tides had been tamed. They had constructed a causeway and now were putting the finishing touches on a new bridge to the Mont.  No longer was the pull of the moon to be a factor in your staying there.  You can leave whenever you’d like.

Oddly, this new construction made me sad.  I liked the idea of being dependent on the forces of nature to determine some of my life.  I don’t want the world made totally ‘person-proofed’.

You don’t have to watch the sea anymore.  You just have to hope a parking spot is available.

You enter the ancient gate of the village.  After crossing over a drawbridge, you find that you are standing at the foot of a long narrow ‘street’ that winds its way to the Abbey.  This is not strictly a street as there are no cars allowed here.  You must walk the winding path, lined with shops, bistros, restaurants, tourist traps and climb the seemingly endless steps.

There is evidence that the Mount was occupied in 708 AD.  During the Hundred Years War, the Abbey was begun by the Benedictines and used as a stronghold.  The fortress has withheld numerous attacks by the English and has become a symbol of the French who held it for so many years.

Today, only twenty people live on the Mont year round.  If you like what the little street of commerce has and you want to open a small hotel, B & B, or shop, you are out of luck.  One must marry into the family of someone who already has the establishment.  The Abbey itself is still in use and houses twelve priests.

But, the shop-lined street merely supports the Abbey which dominates the small mountain.  The tower, the steeple, the statue of St. Michael seem to make up half of the mass of this place.  And, it’s inside the Abbey that I could wander endlessly…from one chapel to another…from one room of columns to the next.  Some of these great rooms are (or were) heated by fireplaces the size of two full-sized cars stacked on their sides.  The entire kitchen of our old Manhattan apartment would easily fit inside the fireplace alcove.  In these rooms, while the massive fires blazed and the Brittany winters, icy winds and bone-chilling rains slammed against the outer walls, monks would sit and copy Bibles…by hand.  Each Bible taking three years to complete. [The Irish monks were doing the same in Dublin, creating the Book of Kells.]

My wife and I had booked this tour (a four-hour drive from Paris) months ago.  Somehow, I thought that we would have adequate free time to wander, think about and photograph the experience.  But, I couldn’t think fast enough to break away from the tour group.  I kept the earphone plugs stuck into my ears while I attempted to keep up with the guide and her commentary.  Finally, I’d had enough.  I took the phones out and let myself fall behind.

Silence.

Only the shuffle of many feet and the low murmurs of other tour groups were audible.  I wanted to explore the nooks and corners of the Abbey on my own.  I wanted to slip into a wool cassock and become one of the monks.  I tried to resurrect (in my head) a man of the cloth, dead for centuries, to walk with me through the dark chambers and up and down the winding stone stairways.  I leaned against a column in the hope that some long-forgotten energy that dwelt within the stone, would flow into me and show me the corners that no other tourist could see.

I saw small flat areas, lit by the sunlight, where I would sit and read Aquinas, Thomas a’Kempis or St. Theresa.  I would think.  I would pray.  I would feel the mystic power of God…for He had to dwell here.  He had to.  Like a “Field of Dreams”, a group of monks, a thousand years ago looked at the rocky crag and said: “If we build it, He will come”.

But, I was not allowed to follow saints, I was following a tour guide and she made it clear the bus was going to be leaving at a chosen hour.  I had to be there.  I had to catch up.  I had to leave my quiet spaces and my ghost-monks behind.

There was no tide to watch for today.  Just the wrath of a tour guide who didn’t want to have the group wait for the grey-haired Yank tourist who kept falling behind.

Fifteen hours after we boarded the coaches in Paris, we were finally back to the plaza near the pyramid of the Louvre.

These photos are those I took while trying to get lost among the holy stones of the Abbey of Mont St. Michel:

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The Abbey of Mont Saint-Michele.

 

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The tidal flats and new causeway.

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Abbey Interior

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Abbey Interior

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Abbey Interior

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Abbey Interior

Passports 3: Passing Through the Fields of Death

We left Paris on a crisp bright May morning.  This was the only day-long excursion we booked in advance.  We were going to visit Mont St. Michele in Brittany.  The trip would take us four hours one way, in a northwest direction to this 850 year old Abbey mountain.

Our route took us through the hills of Normandy, north and west of Paris.  This was the precious ground, the holy ground that over a million Allied troops were to fight for in the weeks after D-Day.  It all looks so gentle and peaceful since those times, 70 years ago, when the troops headed to liberate Paris.  It took them two months to reach this city.  It took us just hours to pass through.  We wanted to visit the beaches, Omaha, Juno and others on another excursion but found the cost too prohibitive.  So, we simply passed through to make a more affordable trip to this beautiful Abbey.

The photos that are inserted below were shot from the bus window.  They are not the best quality…how could they be when you’re moving so fast along a motorway?  But these fields, hedgerows, stone farm houses and small villages were not picturesque in 1944 like they are today in 2014.  No, each hedge, each small field experienced death and conflict.  The Germans were defending the French soil.  The Allies were intent on freeing France from the tyranny of Nazism.

The very soil that now grows the famous Normandy apples trees, feeds the cows that provide the succulent cheese…were all fertilized by the blood of an occupying army and the blood of an army of liberation.

I look out the coach window and try to put myself in the head of a GI who was lucky enough to make it past the deadly sands of the landing beaches.  I tried to visualize myself crawling, walking and slogging my way south to Paris.  I tried to tap into the collective memory of any one of the thousands of soldiers who saw the same sun that I was seeing…the same clouds that I was watching…the same stone buildings that were still standing.  I tried to go back in time to be that lonely, frightened, homesick young man.  Then the thought came to me that, perhaps, if by some twist in time, I became that soldier…would I make it across the next patch of green pasture? Or, would I feel a sudden pinch in my temple or chest…fall to the ground, and watch the blue sky bleed away into the whiteness, leaving a child, widow, mother and father to grieve for me back in America…and honor me when the flags come out?  Yes, when the flags are put on the vet’s graves, by tradition on May 30,  the day before my birthday.

The coach lurched and I found myself balancing my iPad mini on my knee.  I turned away from the fields of death, now so very beautiful, said a heartfelt prayer for those who made it to Paris and eventually home, and for those who did not.  They are still here, under one of the countless white crosses in the American Cemeteries around Caen.

I went back to my solitaire game.  I was in the present moment again.

But, was I? Really?

 

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